On the road to the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, two American snowboarders captured the national spotlight as they awaited the call telling them that they had made it onto their country’s snowboarding team. The first was Shaun White, a much-endorsed, carrot-topped celebrity who had already taken home gold in 2006, and whose name you have undoubtedly heard. The second was Kevin Pearce, who shared a friendly rivalry with White and managed to overtake the famed snowboarder in some of the world’s biggest competitions. Pearce had wavy hair more accustomed to a surfer than a boarder, a radiant smile and just the right amount of confidence as to appear courageous but not cocky. It was natural wisdom that one of these two young Americans would bring home gold in Vancouver.
However, five weeks before Vancouver, during the first practice run on a Park City, Utah half-pipe, Pearce attempted to land a difficult move and ended up face first in the snow. Friends rushed to his aid and Pearce was airlifted to hospital. Although vital signs soon came, Pearce’s dreams of winning the half-pipe were now no more than just that, a pipe dream. His journey from Olympic hopeful to trying to regain those same hopes as he recovered from a traumatic brain injury is the focus of The Crash Reel, one of the short-listed documentaries for the Academy Awards this year and likely one of the most deeply affecting films ever made about sports.
Two-time Oscar nominee Lucy Walker (Waste Land) takes an intimate look at Pearce’s recovery and his battle to accept that he may never snowboard again. At the same time, Walker’s film is an eye-opening glimpse of the increasingly dangerous nature of competitive sport and the repercussions that severe injury has on athletes’ mental health. The Crash Reel feels both achingly personal and zeitgeist defining.
Walker assembled much of The Crash Reel from archives of Pearce’s victories in world competitions, as well as home movies of the Pearce family. (One exceptionally telling moment comes near the start, with video footage of Pearce as a 1-year-old daredevil climbing up on a chair, but folding into tears when he doesn’t know how to get down.) Luckily for the director, snowboarders, their friends and their fans like to film all of their gutsy attempts on the half-pipe, as well as some fooling around back at the chalet. Even just through the vérité footage, Walker creates a vivid and revealing look at Pearce’s ascent into extreme-sports stardom and the painstaking steps that he would later go through to recover from injury.
In clips filmed before his tragic fall, we see that The Olympics were important for Pearce to prove himself as a legitimate athlete. He put himself under immense pressure not just to be on the American Olympic team, but to be their top pick. However, upon a reporter’s question about the risks of getting hurt, Pearce’s voice wavers and – for the first time in the film – he looks scared.
The purest scenes in The Crash Reel come during tense discussions between Pearce and his family during Thanksgiving dinner. After a moment of grace where they solemnly recall what they are thankful for, the conversation shifts to Pearce’s dreams to snowboard again. Kevin’s younger brother, David, who has Down syndrome and is a Special Olympics athlete, tells Kevin that he would be putting his life at needless risk. Father Simon reminds him that any minor trauma from this point forward could result in his death.
The family looks distraught as Kevin resolves to push himself to the limit and says that he wants to retry the cab double cork move – the one that he failed to make and resulted in his traumatic brain injury. He is trapped between a lust for the sport and the love of his family.
The documentary gets its title from video compilations of the most shocking wipeouts in extreme sports. Some of the fans who rush out to watch these extreme competitions do so as much to watch these athletes triumph as to watch them fall. At a few moments during The Crash Reel, Walker includes footage of some of these vicious montages. In one unsettling shot, the signals from a helmet camera vibrate as an extreme athlete lands lop-sided on the ground.
Although the director does an exceptional job at burrowing past the devastating footage to focus on the tough road to recovery that befell one snowboarder, the decision to feature as much of this footage becomes sickening and a tad exploitative. Walker would have been smarter to use some of these disturbing accidents more sparingly.
Like most sports films, this one has a happy ending; although here, it is not a triumph of achievement as much as one of discipline. Walker makes Pearce’s journey even more compelling through showing the young boarder encounter other athletes that have gone through similar scars, and how their collapses inflict pain on themselves as well as their family.
While not perfect, The Crash Reel is a deeply affecting documentary that captures a vivid dialogue about the effects of traumatic brain injury in professional sports through a fascinating athlete and his struggle to accept his fate.
The Crash Reel is an insightful and deeply affecting look at the hazardous world of extreme sports, through the lens of ill-fated snowboarder Kevin Pearce.